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Room with a view: James Madison for Black History Month

I want to publish a quote from James Madison in celebration of Black History Month, at the risk of being accused of… cultural insensitivity. What could a white slave-owning planter from Virginia have to say that speaks to Blacks about their own history?

He had this to say:

It were doubtless to be wished, that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves had not been postponed until the year 1808, or rather that it had been suffered to have immediate operation. But it is not difficult to account, either for this restriction on the general government, or for the manner in which the whole clause is expressed. It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period, it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished, by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic, in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the Union. Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European breathren!

Attempts have been made to pervert this clause into an objection against the Constitution, by representing it on one side as a criminal toleration of an illicit practice, and on another as calculated to prevent voluntary and beneficial emigrations from Europe to America. I mention these misconstructions, not with a view to give them an answer, for they deserve none, but as specimens of the manner and spirit in which some have thought fit to conduct their opposition to the proposed government.

That quote comes from Federalist No. 42, The Powers Conferred by the Constitution Further Considered. It was published on Tuesday, January 22, 1788. The Federalist Papers were a series of 85 papers published in support of the proposed new Constitution that would be approved by all the States and replace the Articles of Confederation that the original Thirteen Colonies organized under after the American Revolution. The other two authors were Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

Madison is referring to Article I, Section 9, paragraph 1 of the proposed new Constitution. It reads:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

This paragraph sunsetted on January 1, 1808 — meaning that from that date the Federal government could enact a law banning the importation of slaves. The US Congress passed such a law in 1807, to become effective at the earliest possible date, and President Thomas Jefferson (another white slave owner from Virginia) signed it into law.

Great Britain passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act the same year, banning the British slave trade.

Reuters has published a chronology of the abolition of the slave trade that adds insight to Madison’s quote. At the time Madison’s paper was published and the former Colonies were debating the approval of the proposed new Constitution, the trans-Atlantic slave trade reached its peak, but the writing was on the wall, so to speak.

Although the next decade saw complete or partial banning of slave trading in Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and France, Great Britain would not abolish slavery in its own colonies until 1833. In the United States, expansion westward complicated things greatly. It would take a Civil War to finally enforce “No more!” on reluctant Southern States. It would take more than a hundred years after the Civil War for Black civil rights to be recognized and codified.

We still have work to do, but we have come a ways from 1788, when a white slave-owning Virginia planter defended the notion that a new Federal government should rightly have the power to quash “a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy…”

Those who would “cancel” the Founders would erase so much more than over-simplified caricatures.